The art of caring with Shaiwana Nisar

Article reading time: 5 min. | 23. Nov 2023, written by Harini Rajasekhar
Tags StudentStories GenderEquality Sustainability HumanResource OnlineStudies VirtualLearning

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Shaiwana Nisar  

Programme: MBA in Human Resource Management (Online) 

Class of 2024 

Country of Origin: Pakistan 

“Being privileged is a responsibility,” says Shaiwana Nisar, matter-of-factly. “If you do not take up that responsibility, it is selfish.” 

I join the interview call with Shaiwana on a chilly Saturday afternoon, from my flat in Berlin. Shaiwana joins from her home in Sukkur, Pakistan. Despite being in the middle of preparing for her exams at IU, Shaiwana is cheerful and ready to go. The first thing she says to me is - “I liked the question you asked me via email: Why do you care about what you care about?”  

One glance at Shaiwana Nisar’s resume and it’s obvious that this is a girl who cares deeply. In a world that prizes detachment, Shaiwana cares proudly. At 26 years old, Shaiwana has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Youth Awards, for her exemplary work in sustainable and peaceful development in her country. So yes, I was curious – why does she do it?  

Growing up: understanding privilege and perspective

Shaiwana grew up in Sukkur, a city in the Sindh province of Pakistan. It is the country’s third-largest province with a diverse population that includes both urban and rural areas. Growing up, Shaiwana had a window into the challenges of both urban and rural communities.  

This became more pronounced when she started university at IBA, studying Business. “Many of the students and hostelers at IBA university came from rural backgrounds,” she tells me. “Some of the girls used to think that these four years at uni would be the only fun years of their entire lives! Because they knew that once they went back to their homes, they were going to get limited options related to their life and career.” She saw firsthand the impact of challenges like gender inequality, climate change and mental health on people, in real life. “This is why I became passionate about the Sustainable Development Goals,” she states.  

After graduation, Shaiwana had the opportunity to work with big MNCs “for profit”, she points out. But her experiences at IBA had made her intensely aware of her privilege. She wanted to do more. Shaiwana made an unconventional yet brave decision - “SRSO - Sindh Rural Support Organisation – is one of the largest Organisations in the country and works towards supporting and developing rural populations” she says with pride. “I chose to work here. Choosing your first job is a big deal, and I am very proud that I chose SRSO!”  

First steps: SRSO and the Sustainable Development Goals

As SRSO’s new Reporting and Documentation Officer and Communications Officer, Shaiwana was a liaison between rural grassroots and international organisations. “This was big for me because I was going to meet hundreds of women and girls from rural areas who live a completely different life that I, coming from the city, have never experienced,” she says.  

One of Shaiwana’s first projects was a women-led program called SUCCESS, funded by the European Union. “My job involved connecting rural women with our management team, funders, journalists and even government officials,” she says. “We had weekly visits to rural areas, and I had the chance to raise my voice on matters like gender-based violence and women empowerment. I was writing blogs about our success stories, instances when women helped change their own economic situations, or sent their daughters to school.” 

Aurat Raaj

One day, Saba Khalid visited SRSO to see if her organisation Aurat Raaj could partner with them. Shaiwana had a particularly enlighting conversation with her. “What she told me blew my mind - at Aurat Raaj, they used technology to solve rural and development issues. They also focused on menstrual health management, which I hadn’t worked on at SRSO yet,” she says. “Menstruation is taboo in rural areas, and you will find tons of dangerous menstrual health myths. For instance, women don’t touch any food, or take a shower, or attend weddings or functions if they are menstruating. These are the things that they have shared with me on my field visits.” 

Aurat Raaj partnered with SRSO to introduce an AI based chatbot called ‘Raji’ in focus group discussions with rural women. Rural women saw that they could have conversations with Raji to get factual information on menstrual health and hygiene. Shaiwana helped work on the chatbot, translating into Sindhi, one of the local languages. “The women were shy in the beginning. They were stunned – a robot, talking about menstruation? And in their local language? They’d never imagined such a thing!” she laughs. 

A beloved new project: Raaji Pads

Shaiwana received an offer to work with Aurat Raaj as their Rural Innovations Specialist, and she accepted! She continued working in menstrual health management for rural women: creating audio content on the topic in local languages and gathering listening parties to spread awareness.  

Through her interactions with them, Shaiwana learnt that the situation was dire. “Many rural girls in Pakistan do not have access to clean menstrual products, so they miss school,” she says. “They use a dirty cloth piece, sometimes the same cloth for years. Some use cotton. Some of the women said they did not use anything! They would tie their trousers in a way and then change the trousers later. This was heartbreaking to hear.” 

Determined to do something about it, Shaiwana and her team searched for solutions.  What if they could train the local women to make hygienic and sustainable sanitary pads? Raaji Pads was born! "Our biggest and most loved project!” Her face lights up as she talks about it. “It was important to us to find a sustainable solution, since plastic waste from menstrual products is a rising problem. We began working on creating a reusable cloth pad that was suitable for the skin but also the environment. I remember going to find the best fabric in Sukkur market. I chose it by testing it on my skin first.”  The rural women were then trained to sew and manufacture the pads themselves, then sell it to other women in their communities.  

The floods – a turning point

In 2022, Pakistan suffered a devastating flood that killed more than 1700 people. Although she was away for work, Shaiwana worked with SRSO to provide aid and menstrual health care to their networks of rural women. “During the floods we had to shut down all our other activities and focus on aid. The problem is, we can only provide temporary relief. It is the government that must put in place long-term solutions,” she says. “But yes, unfortunately, that was when we had to close our projects. It was a difficult time for me. My own bedroom was water-logged. I could only imagine how much worse it would’ve been in the villages.” 

After recuperating from the floods, Shaiwana was ready to take on a new challenge. She applied and was accepted into the MBA in Human Resource Management programme at IU! With the online option, she could study at IU from Pakistan while working at The Citizen’s Foundation (TCF) as their Senior HR Officer.  

Shaiwana is crystal clear about her future goals - “Right now, my focus is on two things. First, getting a practical education in human resource management from IU. Second, keeping a strong commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically education and mental health.”  

Working on the Sustainable Development Goals

There’s a lot going on in our world today. Between the wars and melting ice caps and climate anxiety and poverty and inequality, it can feel defeating to work towards a better future. Against this backdrop, I ask her what advice she has for young people who want to bring change. How do we work through the overwhelming weight of all that is happening, especially climate anxiety when it comes to the younger generations?  

She offers these two gems: “First, understand that any impact matters. I love taking on small initiatives. Just pick an SDG that you like and do something about it or for it. You may have an impact on just one person, but that one person can share it with others. For example, the women who were embarrassed to talk about their periods in the focus groups are now educating the other women about menstruation. Impact grows. Secondly, connect with like-minded individuals. Don’t hold space for people with negative vibes – take care of yourself and your mental health and collaborate with people who are passionate about the cause.” 

Shortlisting for the 2023 Commonwealth Youth Awards

The Commonwealth Youth Awards, organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat, is an award that celebrates young people leading outstanding development work in their communities. This year, Shaiwana was shortlisted as one among the 20 regional finalists from around the world for spearheading impactful developmental work. It’s a pretty big deal!  

I got the e-mail when I was home. I was completely shaking when I saw it. My hands were trembling!” she laughs. I ask about her family, and what they felt. Were they proud? “My mother and brother are the superheroes in my life. They empowered me financially. They empowered me to make my own decisions,” she says. Her love for them is evident, it shows not just through her words but also in her work. "Working at SRSO and Aurat Raaj was my choice. Studying at IU was my choice. Working at TCF and then starting Mentopedia Foundation is my choice. Whatever I do, they have always supported me and appreciated me! My brother proudly shared that his little sister won this award and I was just so happy.”  Mentopedia Foundation is Shaiwana’s latest venture to empower women and girls in the country by promoting mind-body wellness, with a focus on mental health. 

She tells me earnestly that, if anything, being shortlisted for the award has only made her more aware of her privilege, and her responsibility to bring change. “I have the resources to access things like higher education, menstrual healthcare and mental health help. But if I was a girl in a rural area, I simply would not have these choices. I would not have a choice in the most basic and crucial things, like who my partner would be for instance. This award is a big reality check for me to keep on working. It is my responsibility.”  

 We at IU are cheering on Shaiwana and offer our hearty congratulations on this big win!  

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